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The New International, July 1934


David Ernest

Marxism and Art

From New International, Vol. I No. 1, July 1934, pp. 26–27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Artists in Uniform. A Study of Literature and Bureaucratism
by Max Eastman
viii+257 pp. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50.

To the greatly needed clarification of the highly controversial problem of the relation of art to the revolution, Artists in Uniform makes a very ambiguous contribution. For the American reader, the book makes available for the first time a reliable account of the theory and practise of the official Communist party, in Russia and elsewhere, with reference to writers and literature; together with valuable statements about the relation of culture to the proletarian revolution by such Marxists as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Polonsky, and others, and by Soviet Russia’s chief creative literary artists. But Eastman’s interpretations’ of this rich material, and his conclusions, are so personal, confused, and un-Marxian as to bedevil the cause he claims to espouse – the freeing of the creative process from factional-bureaucratic chains.

Part II (A Literary Inquisition) – to a much less extent Part I – contains the meat of the book. There will be found the ghastly history of the depredations of Stalinism on the body of art. The ignorance and quackery, with reference to artistic processes and products, of Moscow cultural officialdom; its mechanical regimentation and shameless terrorization of intellectuals; its pretentious, grandiose projects to build proletarian literature overnight by bureaucratic fiat; its vicious inner factional manoeuvres and intrigues; its amazing unprincipled zig-zags between, on the one hand, sectarian excommunication, “pogromny” (complete economic, social, and literary ruin) of artists sincerely aiding or approaching the revolution as punishment for alleged heretical misdemeanors to, on the other hand, opportunistic alliances with the crudest bourgeois mystical adventurers, in which the most extravagant press-agent campaigns, flooding all Russia with acclaim for new-born Proletarian Geniuses, are swapped for temporary, often undelivered, services on the factional front – the whole foul, devastating havoc of talent, revolutionary creativeness and even lives that the blundering, irresponsible un-Communist programs and policies of present Soviet rule has wreaked during the past decade, all is here in vivid and suggestive outline.

The cultural catastrophe is, of course, but one phase of the degeneration of CP economic, political, and social institutions and activities, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, arising from the usurpation by the Stalinist faction of the party apparatus, its bureaucratization, and its jettisoning of Marxism under the slogan of the “fight against counter-revolutionary Trotskyism”. The whole weight of the first two sections of Eastman’s book implies no other conclusion; many passages state it overtly; the book’s sub-title is A Study of Literature and Bureaucratism. Yet, amazingly, Eastman’s final diagnosis designates as the root cause of the CP disease, not the “brutality of Stalinist bureaucracy”, but the “bigotry of Marxist metaphysics”. It is Marx, if you please, not Stalin, who crucifies revolutionary culture!

This dizzy acrobatic feat Eastman attempts in his Part III – Art and the Marxian Philosophy – and a more wildly conceived stunt has seldom been attempted in the anti-Marxian polemical circus, unparalleled for truth-fact-logic-reality-defyinig somersaults, flip-flops, slack-wire pirouettes and trapeze leaps through thin air. The unimpressed spectator is left wondering what to call the business – an unclassifiable curiosity or simply clowning?

Perhaps even this speculation would be unwarranted, were it not that Eastman’s present fire-cracker, boyishly placed under the great-chair of Papa Marx, is but the latest of a whole series of similar adolescent pranks that have won some public notice. Even at that, it is hard to take seriously these utterances, which together constitute the Defiance of the Lone Rebel of Croton, The Last Survivor of the Old Masses Gang, to the invading hordes of Marxism which Eastman alone is clever enough to detect and expose, under their proletarian masks and blouses, as a lot of bearded German idealistic metaphysicians who bode no good to the free scientific lives of free-born writers of free verse.

This may seem burlesque. Nevertheless, Eastman’s argument always boils down to a reiteration of this curious thesis, and little else.

Only with difficulty may one crystallize out of this prattle three – we cannot call them principles, even contentions – foci of emotional prejudices.

  1. A romantic idealization of science. Science to Eastman is an intellectual abstraction, kept pure of the touch of all human, much less class hands, by poetic cellophane. No matter that nothing like it has ever been seen on sea or land, nor will be – at least not until we have had some generations of the classless society. Even liberals like Professor Carl Becker (in the Nation) look on with open-mouthed bewilderment while Eastman dashes horrifiedly away from Science at the Cross-Roads smack into the arms of the Science of the Rockefeller Foundation.
  2. A suspicion of the “foreign”. When all is said and done, Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin are all Russians, and Marx is, horrors, a German! Eastman, surprisingly, thinks of himself, and of science, as American.
  3. Worship of the artist as the Free Soul – and of art as the only untrammeled, and untrammelable, activity of these Free Souls.

These are expressions of this naive romantic view in Eastman’s works, which considering that the writer has lived, edited, and written in modern industrial America, are simply incredible. Eastman is a citizen of the world, knows eruditely the history of art under different forms of class rule, has lived through decades unparalleled in history for their devastation of romantic illusions. How, through all these years, he has kept his School-girl Conception – here we are confronted by a mystery of individual psychological history.

Unfortunately, Eastman’s personal aberrations have consequences. His biases, perverting and vitiating as they do the clear line of the truth about the relation of Marxism and art – which is that while Marxism does not war against the artist, pseudo-Marxism does – succeed in lending considerable aid and comfort to the enemy. Not – as Eastman feared – because he criticized the Soviet Union (in Communism nothing is exempt from criticism); but because he criticized it unsoundly. The capitalist critic was only too happy to find that Marx is a cultural anti-Christ; and to draw from the astonishing absence in Eastman’s book of any real description of the climatic unfriendliness of the capitalist regime to art, the lesson that after all in America art, at least, the human “spirit”, was free.

However, we need not be too greatly agitated. Eastman’s scientific-aesthetic formulae have been kicking around for a long time without winning support. They are widely recognized for what they are – the unsuccessful approaches of a third-rate poet and a first-rate journalist to the grand dame Philosophy: not theory, but personal – and unreciprocated – flirtations with theory. Fortunately, moreover, the facts that Eastman presents in Artists in Uniform are so clear and so damning as to enable any intelligent reader to draw from them sounder conclusions than the author himself did. If he has besides some knowledge of the respectful attitude of Marx and the Marxian tradition to art (sufficiently indicated, as a matter of fact, by the quotations in Eastman’s book from those undeniable Marxists, Lenin and Trotsky) ; if he has the slightest acquaintance with Stalinist “cultivation of the arts” in the United States, tinder the cultural consulships of Joseph Freeman, Oakley Johnson and Earl Browder, with its violent alternation of terrorization and beslobbering of artists – so much the better. Happily, an increasing number of American readers have both ...

Of course, this is not enough. No Marxist-Leninist can rest content while the best available attack on the pseudo-Marxist regimentation of the artist (squeezing art into army-cap and high-boot uniform) remains one written from the viewpoint of a Left wing nudist. Uniforms are bad, but equally bad is wholesale anarchist repudiation of the plain facts of the common unhappy lot and fate of the artist under declining capitalism, and of the necessity, on the part of the artist, of some common consciousness of the revolutionary way out through common effort, with fellow-craftsmen and the proletariat (even in the field of art!) toward a common socialist goal.

That this is a difficult, complicated problem – bedevilled by bad aesthetics and worse politics – no one will deny. How does the class position of the artist resemble, how differ from, that of the proletariat? Art must be given more latitude in line by the revolutionary party than can political action; how much? What is the distinction between propaganda-agitation and “creative art”? What individual factors, what collective factors enter into the creative process? From a revolutionary standpoint, what are the differing characters, uses, of various literary forms – poetry, novel, epic, history, etc.; how in turn do these differ from art products in other fields, painting, sculpture, movies, etc.? In what sense can we speak of proletarian art, bourgeois art? These are only a few of the host of thorny questions that beset the critic who would hew his way to a soundi approach to the role of the artist in the revolution.

At the moment, we Marxists have little more to offer than some rough notes by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and a few others. Invaluable as these are, they are only a small beginning of what we must have before we can speak of a Marxian view of Art.

It is to be hoped that the pages of The New International will be able to make significant contributions to that broad, healthy international discussion on this important cultural problem which alone will clear the air of the assorted capitalist and Stalinist vapors that now obscure and poison the creative landscape.

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